Bear Creek Park easement concept gets thumbs-up from throng at public meeting

       Although a number of questions came up, a proposed conservation easement for El Paso County's Bear Creek Regional Park gained a favorable response at a public meeting May 22. Surveys turned in afterwards by about half of the roughly 100 attendees found 83.7 percent “completely agree” with the idea while just 4.7 percent “completely disagree.”

Scott Campbell, executive director of the Palmer Land Trust, answers a question during the May 22 public meeting about a proposed conservation easement for El Paso County's Bear Creek Regional Park.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Twenty-six people additionally volunteered to serve on a steering committee to support the added legal protection for the 573-acre property off South 21st Street, according to Tim Wolken, director of the county's Community Services Department.
       Two people even announced at the meeting that they would donate money to the private fundraising campaign that will seek $17,500 to cover the protection costs.
       One of these was a woman who pledged to give $500.
       "Now we have $17,000 to go," Wolken cheerfully responded.
       The meeting, held at the Bear Creek Nature Center, was organized by County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who expressed the concern that without an easement future commissioners might consider selling Bear Creek Park to balance their budget.
      

A chart provided by County Parks shows the history behind the current effort to establish a conservation easement for Bear Creek Regional Park.
Westside Pioneer photo
The county is working on the easement plan with the Palmer Land Trust (PLT), which formed on the Westside in the late 1970s and has since become one of the nation's leaders in land preservation, according to its executive director, Scott Campbell.
       A conservation easement is a permanent legal agreement that restricts the use of a property. In the case of Bear Creek Regional Park, which consists of recreational and open space, it would ensure that the land could never be sold for commercial uses such as oil drilling or housing development, according to comments from county and PLT officials at the meeting.
       Having an easement would also allow the county to preserve or develop areas of the park in keeping with its master plan. For example, the areas that already are developed - such as the tennis courts, community garden, pavilions, and the dog park - would be allowed to retain their current uses and even to have other uses added. Areas of the park that have no development could be restricted to remain as open space, Wolken said.
       If an easement was put on the park, the county would remain responsible for its continuing maintenance and improvements. However, any proposals for adding recreational uses would have to be run past the PLT to make sure they don't break the terms of the agreement, county and PLT officials clarified in answer to questions.
       "Permanent" doesn't actually mean the easement can never be removed. Campbell noted that higher levels of government can use condemnation to end easements. An example is Fort Carson deciding in recent years it needed easement-protected properties in the Pinon Canyon area for military training.
       The county already has put conservation easements on 25 percent of the 6,000 acres it owns, Wolken said. Asked why the county could not just hold a Bear Creek easement itself - thus eliminating the need to raise $17,500 - he explained that such is illegal, which is why PLT was brought in.
       The Land Trust, a non-profit organization, seeks no gain from the arrangement. "We are a charity interested in upholding the public interest," Campbell said.
       A philosophical difference emerged at the meeting, regarding whether it is appropriate for the county to legally encumber future commissioners who may believe that selling park land is needed to balance the budget.
       Clark explained that the county is required to carry out certain state mandates - such as having a jail - but owning park land is not one of them. This is one of the reasons the County Parks budget was cut so severely a few years ago, she said.
       Another attendee asked why the county could not just have a vote of the people to say the land should be preserved. The county answer to that was that an election would cost more than an easement; also, a public vote now could be overcome by a reverse vote in the future, so the protection would be less permanent than an easement.
       The next steps for the county include taking public input, establishing the steering committee, fundraising the PLT cost, working out the easement details with PLT and eventually gaining approval from the Board of County Commissioners.
       Addressing a possible time frame to complete the easement process, Wolken said, "If the stars align, at the end of 2012."

Westside Pioneer article (with reporting contribution by N. Rioux Jordan)